The United Nations envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily’s top priority in Libya is to lead the country to concurrent presidential and legislative elections before the end of this year. He is on record to have said that much.
Elections have been his focus since he assumed office in September 2022 but he has, so far, failed to make any breakthrough on the matter. The sticking point has always been election laws and their implementation.
His ultimate goal is to end the long, precarious transitional period in the country—a task that eluded his previous colleagues.
Under his predecessor, Stephanie Williams, Libya was scheduled to vote in December 2021, but that attempt failed at the last minute, mainly because of differences over election laws governing eligibility of contestants and how voting should take place in the fractured country.
Over the last two years, little progress has been made towards solving that problem and Libyan protagonists failed to agree on a constitutional base for elections.
The country’s two feuding Chambers, the Higher Council of State (HCS) and the House of Representatives (HoR), still disagree pretty much on almost everything to do with elections.
Under pressure from the UN, foreign powers and the Libyan public, the two Chambers finally agreed, last April, to form 6+6 commission tasked with drafting election laws.
After several rounds of meetings inside the country and abroad, the Commission, made up of six members from each Chamber, claimed to have reached consensus on the required draft laws, pending approval by HoR and HCS in special separate meetings. However, so far, nothing has been made public and no date for such votes has been announced. In fact, some members of both Chambers have already objected to what the 6+6 Commission has produced. And the public does not have a clue of what the Commission has drafted.
The only public glimpse of what the drafts really say came on 19 June, during Bathily’s briefing of the UN Security Council and it is not promising.
He appeared unhappy with the outcome, expressing his reservations while, out of politeness, welcomed the Commission’s efforts.
He said of the draft laws that they are not “sufficient to resolve the most contested issues”, highlighting four shortcomings: eligibility of candidates, provision requiring new government to run elections and another provision for a second round of voting in presidential election even if a candidate “secures more than 50 per cent” of the votes required to win. Now, the UN envoy is planning his next move.
Last March, in his press briefing in Tripoli, Bathily said he believed that electoral laws could be ready by the end of June and elections might follow sometime in September, or a little later. June is almost over and nothing has been finalized of the supposed laws.
In his briefing to the UN Security Council he appeared to, quietly, announce the death of 6+6 Commission. He said “I intend to intensify negotiations and convene major stakeholders, or their trusted representatives, to reach a final settlement on the most contentious issues.” Here, he is referring to his vague “High-Level steering panel for Libya” which he announced last February. Such a panel is supposed to produce implementable “draft laws” to enable “successful elections”, Bathily concluded.
This means bypassing both Chambers. That route has been taken before, and failed. It is credited with producing the current Government of National Unity, headed by Abdulhamid Dbeibah, after a bribery-tainted elections process, supervised by the UN mission.
It will be interesting to watch what Bathily will do next, as he slides slowly but surely towards another gridlock in Libya.
Any of the following five scenarios might come into play:
- Bathily seeks to build on what 6+6 Commission has achieved and re-launch another round of mediation to get more Libyan protagonists and international stakeholders to support elections. This should peak in convening his “High-Level steering panel” to produce the required laws. This is a time-consuming process and can be difficult to succeed because both HCS and HoR are very likely to reject it. Libyans, in general, will not welcome such a maneuver since the majority of them, and most foreign stakeholders, want elections as soon as possible. In 2021, almost three million Libyans registered to vote, only to be disappointed by the shelving of the ballot indefinitely, and they will not accept yet another open- ended process without any guarantees that it will lead to voting. Foreign stakeholders, including the United States, France and Egypt will certainly resist such a move.
- The idea of Dbeibah-Haftar track to form a new government to organise elections is already rejected by the UN and others. Indeed, General Khalifa Haftar is said to be in talks with Dbeibah, trying to agree a new administration to share power. But neither HoR nor HCS will accept this because such a scenario will also mean Dbeibah and Haftar will have complete control over the political process. No other politician will ever accept this.
- Now that the 6+6 Commission, pronounced almost dead on each side, will try to mend bridges with his rivals, based on the current east-west divisions, Dbeibah will try to co-opt HCS chairman, Khaled Mishri, while Haftar and the HoR Speaker, Agila Saleh, will bridge their differences in the east. New alliances are likely to emerge, leading to prevalence of the status quo. The consequence of this is that elections, again, will become a distant dream unlikely to happen in the near future. Credibility of all politicians, as well as the entire UN mediations process, is likely to further erode more than it is already.
- Should the gridlock continue without any hope, war is also likely. Locked political processes are vicious political circles and fertile grounds for more quarrels and bitter divisions, broken only through violence. No one wants war now in Libya and the 2020 ceasefire is still holding, however shaky it is. Yet, the possibility of another round of violence is not to be discounted.
- On average, each UN envoy to Libya has served some two years and the UN might, at some point next year, consider replacing Bathily altogether. That will actually mean a return to the drawing board.
The only certainty now, it appears, is that no elections are likely in 2023. Nobody is saying this out loud, but indications point towards this. The real issue here is this: Libyans have to settle their own problems and, failing this task, then they only have themselves to blame.